If there was a way to describe a ‘budget’ of any kind without actually calling it a budget, I’d use it. Any kind of structure or boundary can be perceived as a limitation. A budget, a diet, a schedule, whatever. Really, these things are types of policy, ways to make life easier without having to make tons of decisions all the time. With enough structure in place, we can spend the majority of our time doing whatever the heck we want. The necessities start to feel like they are running on autopilot. A space budget is a way of defining how much room we have for ourselves versus how much of our living space we are going to allow to be swallowed up by our material belongings.
Ten gallons in a five gallon bucket. I’ll leave the contents to your imagination. Ten gallons of what? Gold coins? Laundry? Kitty litter? Rum punch? The point is that without opening some kind of wormhole into an alternate universe, a given volume of stuff will only fit into a certain amount of physical space. This includes a house, an apartment, a room, a sink, or a purse. It also includes parking spaces for compact cars, even when someone insists on parking an SUV in one.
As an organizer, I can walk through a door and see at a glance how much the room is over capacity. Double, triple, quadruple, quintuple the amount of stuff that belongs in a room of that size. I’ve talked to professional movers who say it’s not uncommon for them to remove one hundred boxes of stuff from a standard bedroom. It’s our job. People like us have been in so many homes and packed so many boxes of stuff that we have the skill of eyeballing it and estimating how much is there.
My chronically disorganized clients, my compulsive accumulators, my squalor survivors... they don’t have this skill.
Beyond that, my people reject any kind of limitations. In their world, what could be perceived as helpful guidelines (how often to go to the grocery store or do laundry) come down as tyrannical edicts or impossible fantasies. There is no such thing as a space budget. There’s no such thing, because they’ll find a way to cram stuff into places that were not designed to store anything. Inspirational! Creative! Clever!
Maybe not organized, or beautiful, or easy to live with, but clever, sure.
Nobody really cares how you live or what you do with your stuff. Your landlord, maybe; other people you live with, probably. Your neighbors will care if you leave a bunch of stuff out where it’s visible from the street. Other than that, if people nag you, you can stop inviting them over. The idea of a space budget is to help you. It helps when you’re looking for stuff, it helps when it’s time to shop or not shop, it helps when it’s time to clean, and it definitely helps when it’s time to move.
A refrigerator and a freezer can only hold so much before the door will no longer close. This is a hard limit. Trying to fit more would result in the door cracking open and the food no longer staying cold. We can accept this. The question is how close to this limit we are comfortable getting. If the fridge or freezer is less than completely full, do we feel uneasy? How often do we clean out the contents and throw out spoiled and expired food? How much are we throwing away? What’s the trigger?
It took me a long time to learn this, but it’s possible to eat well with only a week’s worth of groceries at a time. We clean out the fridge every week, in tandem with grocery shopping. That’s how we know what to buy. It’s also fine to have only one bottle of salad dressing, one jar of jam, etc. Just get a different flavor when the current one is empty.
Just as the fridge can only hold so much, each cabinet and drawer can only hold so much. We had to have a piece of drawer hardware replaced a few weeks ago because we had overloaded that drawer with all the metal serving utensils we own. It all fit, but it was too heavy. After the repair, I took out all the dinner party stuff and moved it into a lidded container in a cupboard. It’s not what we OWN that triggers what goes where; it’s what the infrastructure of the building will hold.
Even the tiniest studio apartment with an efficiency kitchen will hold enough pots, pans, dishes, and utensils to cook regular meals. If anything won’t fit in the available cupboards and drawers, if the countertops or dining table are being used for extra storage, then there’s probably too much stuff for the available space budget.
Closets are another area of defined space budget. My current apartment has one closet. It has to hold two people’s complete wardrobes, exercise gear, luggage, extra blankets, and anything else we don’t want to look at every day. That’s the limit. If it doesn’t fit in the closet, either we get rid of it or it’s in the way. Our place is too small to have stuff lined against the walls; we’d trip over it.
My husband and I now live in about a quarter of the square footage that we had when we were newlyweds. We’ve been able to do this because we have steadily downsized, year after year. Every time we relocate, we choose a new place to live based on the neighborhood and how much we like the place. Each time except for once, this has meant a smaller home with less storage. First we move in, then we figure out what will fit, and then we get rid of everything that’s left over with no permanent spot of its own.
Square footage is the utmost boundary of a space budget. People often start hoarding when they find that the space is available for the first time. The appearance of a garage, guest bedroom, bonus room, or extra closet just seems to invite stacks and piles. These are places of indecision. After a while, piles and stacks start to look normal. We’re able to blur them out of our situational awareness. We stop seeing them, and we forget they’re there.
These are some ways I’ve set a space budget:
When the bookshelves are full, either I get rid of some books or I can’t have any more.
When my hangers are all in use, either I get rid of some clothes or I can’t have any more.
When the kitchen cupboard is full, either we eat some of the food or we don’t buy any more.
Countertops are not storage.
Tabletops are not storage.
Windowsills are not storage.
The floor is not storage.
My work bag needs to be small enough not to hurt my shoulder when it’s full.
Our homes and possessions should be in our service. They should make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful. Anything that gets in the way, anything that causes a distraction, anything that makes life unpleasant should be up for review. Why do we put up with stuff that creates obstacles? Why do we allow our stuff to be so high maintenance? A space budget is a way of saying, “I make the rules around here, not some random pile of inanimate objects.”
Keeping up with the Joneses would only be interesting if they were named Indiana and Leslie. If there’s one sure path to unhappiness, a broad and well-paved path, it’s the path of social comparison. There will always be someone who is richer, sexier, or more famous. What’s the point of comparing ourselves to them? The underrated, more interesting alternative version of social comparison is to Compare Down the Stair. Find someone whose life is harder or less glamorous, and feel grateful not to be in that situation.
My husband and I save 35% of our income and live comfortably in a tiny apartment. One of the reasons for this is that almost everyone we know has a lower household income than we do. This is partly because we deliberately cultivate friendships with young people. We like the laughter and energy of high school and college-aged kids. We also have a lot of older relatives and friends who have been on fixed incomes for a long time. It’s really important to have friends from a broad range of ages. We trade our young friends their hipness quotient, new slang, and music discovery services for our mentoring and recommendation letters. We trade our older friends their experience and glimpses into Future Us for our agility and ability to move heavy objects. We look out for each other.
Down the street from us, less than a mile, is a row of beachfront houses. They’re the closest private homes; everything on either side of us is part of one apartment complex or another. These houses range from $1.8 million to $8 million. They’re not even big! These are very ordinary structures that would undoubtedly sell for under $200,000 in the neighborhood where I grew up. They’d go for much less in other parts of the country. It’s the view, I guess, or the prestige of the zip code? We have the same view and the same access to the same shops and restaurants that they have. We just have it for a small fraction of the cost. We only spend a quarter of our income on rent, by design. A lot of people are willing to push it toward forty percent, and that just seems stressful and foolish. People our age don’t like living in dorm-size apartments. Even our friends in their twenties have bigger apartments than ours. We’d rather have the savings and the financial security than a bigger living room or an extra bedroom.
Who are we trying to impress? Only ourselves. Only Future Us.
There are some things that make it easy. One is that we took a sudden, irresistible job opportunity in a different city. We don’t have the constant social pressure that many people do, no barrage of invitations to bars, clubs, shows, or brunches. The willingness to pick up and move for a better job has two effects: more money and fewer reasons to spend it. When we pass through town and see old friends, they’re more likely to show up, knowing it will probably be a year or more before we can hang out in person again. You can hang out with us basically for the price of a basket of french fries.
Another thing is that neither of us drinks alcohol. That’s just how we are. It tends to mean that we say our goodbyes at the end of the evening when the bottles come out. When we add up how much some of our acquaintances spend on liquor, even at home, we just shake our heads. This is why we get to jet off on cool vacations and they don’t. A hundred dollars a month for one year is enough to pay for a round-trip airplane ticket to almost anywhere in the entire world. That’s twenty-five dollars a week. How many bottles of wine is that? Depends on the price point, doesn’t it?
There’s another area where my husband and I match, and I get credit for it and he doesn’t. That’s in the category of beauty treatments. I don’t color my hair and I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure. I’ve never worn false eyelashes, had a facial, or been to a dermatologist. I have three handbags and two pairs of dress heels. I wear makeup on special occasions, and it all fits in one little cosmetic bag. I have one bottle of nail polish. Go ahead and laugh - when I asked my husband why he married me, he surprised me by saying, “Your frugality.” If I’d been more lavish in my pursuit of girly beautification, I wouldn’t have landed this man, this man who doesn’t like makeup or heels on women. This man who did my taxes while I went to Cancun with my brothers, this man who trims my parrot’s nails and makes me green juice after my workouts. We could probably do more to stage perfect selfies, but our relationship isn’t really about public display. He wouldn’t mind but I find it too stressful to try to make non-awkward facial expressions on command.
Social media has so much to do with this sense that Everyone is Having Fun Except Me. If you have even a hundred friends on social media, and one percent of them are having a great time on any given day, then you can find yourself staring at a seemingly endless stream of blissfully stylish and perfect life. Someone went to a birthday party! Someone had a cute nap with a cat! Someone went white-water rafting! All of these experiences are evenly distributed amongst people who may never have met, but it tends to look like one giant revel where everyone got an invitation except for us. There are three things that help with this. One is to remember that people only post the memorable stuff. Nobody wants to see a picture of me taking out the trash or sorting socks. Two, it helps to put the images in context. Almost all of these posts and pictures include things that we can do, that we actually do, like going to a barbecue or a family get-together. They just happen less often for each individual than they do for the Collective Ongoing Party. Three, the root emotions of these posts are joy, affection, and gratitude, and we have to cultivate these feelings for ourselves. They’re much nicer replacements for FoMO, envy, and the bad kind of social comparison.
Domestic contentment and friendship come from within. We can’t really feel what we perceive as popularity; we can only feel the warmth of affection, regard, and companionship on our own end. Friends are for appreciating and admiring. We should be expending our love and attention on people who make us laugh, whose conversation and company lights us up. Any kind of social motivation that leaves us feeling jealous, dissatisfied, or left out is a motivation that can be replaced. Any contest should be over a dance battle, perhaps, or who is the best hugger or the best listener.
This book is a work of genius. Sometimes I think I’ve read every organizing book ever published, and most of them are great, but they all tend to sound alike. Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD is actually full of original, contrarian ideas that suit the ADHD style. It even has copious amounts of illustrations. These are real rooms. Rather than a Pinterest palace, unattainable for 99% of us, these rooms designed by a professional organizer are feasible and practical. They’re even exciting!
The day I realized that I fit the criteria for ADHD was a wonderful day. I was in my late twenties, born a little too early to have a name for whatever I am. I was reading through a bulleted list of symptoms as a way of getting to know an acquaintance, and with each point, I felt a deepening sense of recognition. AHA! Suddenly, it wasn’t just me. I was just one of many, a type, a tribe member. I wasn’t even bothered by the idea that maybe there was something dysfunctional about me; heck, I already knew that. Rather, I was thrilled to see that along with the chronic disorganization came a lot of truly excellent qualities. Creativity, originality, curiosity, enthusiasm, hyper-focus, high physical and mental energy. Everything snapped into focus for me. If I could learn some practical ways to Get Organized, I could mitigate my weak points while amplifying my positive points.
It worked, too. Year by year, one issue after another, I finally did Get Organized, earn my degree, get on top of my finances, nail my nutrition and hydration, lose the weight, get fit, get rid of most of my stuff, learn to cook, and remarry. Getting my stuff and my information stream organized enabled me to start living the life of my dreams.
It would have happened a lot faster if I’d had this book!
Organizing Solutions recommends avoiding shopping in order to avoid impulse purchases. Agreed. It recommends limiting what you buy or keep to only the available storage. Agreed. It recommends taking your donation items straight out to the car where they will annoy you until you drop them off. Agreed. Get rid of excess stuff on a regular basis so there’s less to clean. Agreed. I had to figure all this stuff out for myself. In fact, the only thing I don’t agree with in this entire book is the thing about reusing towels and wearing clothes multiple times. That may be fine for most people, but I personally am very tough on clothes and our climate is too humid. Instead, we’ve started using hand towels rather than full-size bath towels, and they don’t get funky.
There’s some great advice in Organizing Solutions on how to make decisions about memorabilia, children’s artwork, toys, et cetera. There’s a discussion about how to confront the chilling prospect of identity theft and how that impacts the way we process papers. Susan Pinsky clearly understands her audience. I recognized myself all over this book, and I recognized my organizing clients even more.
As a group, we tend to prefer initiating things to finishing things. We’re more comfortable having tons of projects going on than we are winding any of them up, feeling like we’ve closed off options or that we’ve “finished” something before it reaches its apotheosis of perfection. It can be hard for us to feel like we know where to start, and we infinitely prefer research or planning or daydreaming to action. Take it from Susan Pinsky: start with your home and work from there.
“Inventory shouldn’t just conform to storage but should be less than storage, so that it never requires a multi-step dance to put things away.”
“...any well done organizing job should result in the re-acquisition of a few mistaken discards. It is proof that you applied the Brutal Purge sufficiently enough to make a difference.”
Where is the dividing line between our responsibilities and the tidal wave of fate? Where does self-forgiveness meet abdication or rejection of accountability? When we aren’t able to follow through on something for one reason or another, when is it understandable and when is it a lapse of duty? In other words, when are we excused, when are we let off the hook, when can we blame others, and when is it really just our problem? A life of integrity absolutely demands strong policy choices around these matters.
The decision to accept total accountability is a radical and extremely powerful act. It’s scary and demanding. It requires a humble spirit to rip the dirty old bandages off our psychic wounds and look at them with a discerning eye. Like all decisions, though, it’s freeing. Accepting total responsibility for your life means an end to all manner of squirming and equivocating and waffling and whining. All that is left is clarity and resolute purpose.
What does total accountability mean?
It’s often said that we are supposedly 100% responsible for everything that happens in our lives. This is a wrong thought and a dumb one. Is an entire country responsible for a natural disaster like a typhoon? Are parents responsible for a murderer killing their child? If you say yes to either of those questions, you are a terrible person. I’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that. Fate brings us completely unfair, unpredictable, unpreventable burdens. It’s destiny that we control. We’re not responsible for the volcanos or tornados or earthquakes or murders or mudslides. Where our responsibility becomes relevant is in our response to the terrible vagaries of fate.
Now that I’ve clarified this, I can in good conscience talk about where we are 100% responsible for what happens to us, and that’s when we are living out the results of our own choices and behaviors. Almost every time, when we’re deep in struggle, it’s the completely unintentional result of something we’ve done, sometimes for years on end, not truly realizing that this would be the result. These are the problems we encounter in our relationships, in our careers, in our finances, and in our health. The degree to which we resist accepting our responsibility in these areas reflects the degree to which we continue to live in struggle.
Accepting total responsibility is the only way out.
The year my divorce was finalized, I paid 80% of my earnings to legal and medical bills. It sucked. I’ve earned more in one freelance check than I earned in the entire year of 2000. Not only did I have to deal with the divorce, a lawsuit, and some extremely frustrating medical problems, not only did I have no income until the case was settled, but I was also erroneously hit up for taxes on someone else’s income. It felt like all I did the entire year was write letters and make phone calls trying to resolve one Category Five problem or another. Not my fault, still my problem.
What the experience of living through a year of constant bitchslaps from fate can teach us is that we have the power and the fortitude to deal with stuff. I’m no longer afraid of the IRS; their customer service is fantastic. For nearly twenty years I’ve carried the bone-deep certainty that I must always prioritize my savings account and keep my insurance payments in good standing. I’ve been through worse than a series of bills, injuries, illness, and relationship collapse. I know I can carry myself through the vale of tears and come out alive on the other side. Problems that I used to rate a 10 I now consider more like a 3 or 4. The year 2000 was hardly the last time I endured a bad breakup, an injury, a series of bills, a stretch of unemployment, or the urgent need to move to a new home. It’s not even the last time I got an erroneous tax bill in the $8000 range. Bad things are going to happen in life, over and over and over again, fair or unfair, to us and to our friends and loved ones. We just have to knuckle down and deal with them.
It’s possible to forgive gross unfairness. All forgiveness means is that you come to an emotional agreement with yourself and a storyline about past events that makes sense to you. It does not mean that you excuse someone else’s unjust or cruel or selfish behavior. It does not mean you endorse systemic injustice. It just means you understand what happened and how the same thing could have happened to someone else in the same situation.
Like this: I married a man when we were both young, nobody told me he was mentally ill, and when my life got too challenging, he asked for a divorce. It makes total sense that someone with serious problems of his own would not be ready, willing, or able to stand by me while life threw me simultaneous health, legal, financial, and career problems. I forgive him. I don’t really even think about it anymore; really it only comes up when I think about forgiveness. When I think about him now, like on his birthday, I just hope he’s okay. I can almost even forgive myself for ever being so young and dumb that I thought marriage at 22 was a good idea.
All this being said, if we can forgive unfairness and injustice wrought upon us by others, can we forgive ourselves for being screwups? Can we let go of the guilt and shame of our worst mistakes? I think we can only do it when we know we have accepted the complete burden of responsibility and cleaned up our end of whatever happened. For instance, if my roommates bounced their rent check, it’s not my fault but it’s still my problem. It certainly isn’t the landlord’s fault! If I get into a fender bender and the other party lies about what happened, (which has happened to several people in my acquaintance), it may be wrong, but it’s still up to me to pay whatever the insurer refuses, or my credit will take the hit. I owe what I owe. I have my part to play in all of my relationships, including those of a familial, romantic, business, or financial nature. Just because I walked in blindly and trusted other entities to be scrupulously fair and honest does not absolve me of the responsibility of looking out for my interests.
Past Self had a lot of expensive problems. Past Me spent a lot of time crying herself to sleep over unpaid bills and working side hustles when other people were having fun at music festivals or traveling through Europe. Some of those same specific individuals are now in struggle, not having had to learn the same lessons about financial peril at such a comparatively young age.
When I was young, I was clueless and naive and sometimes irresponsible and unreliable. I hurt people’s feelings unintentionally. I associated with people whose values did not match mine. I often expected other people to pay my way and solve my problems. These are pretty much universal failings of young people throughout time. Now that I’m a mature adult, I pull my weight. I try to stay in constant remembrance of all the times my behavior has unfairly burdened other people, so I can balance my accounts and be the giver instead of the taker. I’m allowed to forgive Past Me for being something of a loser because I’ve paid my debts and made amends where I could.
Integrity means your word is your bond. You keep your promises and follow through. No excuses, no complaints. It’s better to say no 99.999999998% of the time than to say ‘yes’ and bail at the last minute. You show up and do what you said you would do. You fulfill your end of a contract. People can depend on you. If this has not always been true Because of Reasons, you can forgive yourself for this by accepting accountability. Make amends, but more importantly, stop giving your word out like Halloween candy. Stop making commitments until you’re sure you are rock solid and you can keep them. Taking on the burden of total accountability is a clean life, not an easy one but an acceptable one.
I didn’t get the flu shot, but my husband did. That year, I got the flu and he didn’t. It was that simple. That was four years ago, and now I get the flu shot every year.
It wasn’t fun. Getting the flu never is. Of course, that’s why so many people are too afraid to go get the shot. Like me, we’re afraid that the shot itself will make us sick. That winter I didn’t have to imagine it. I got to spend a week and a half flat on my back, feeling like I was dissolving into the couch, while my husband whistled a merry tune and went about his business. I felt like I might die and he obviously felt totally fine. It only took me about an hour of feeling genuinely ill before the free flu shot clinic at his work crossed my mind. Every day that went by I thought about it some more.
I get the tetanus shot. I’ve been immunized against everything, including hepatitis A and B from my social services days. I really never had a problem signing up for other vaccinations, so why was I dragging my feet over the flu vaccine?
Needle reaction. I’m a big baby about getting shots or having my blood drawn. I always have to cover my eyes and put my head down, and I get dizzy afterward. I know it’s pure, 100% anxiety. It’s still not fun having my amygdala hijacked, when I strongly prefer having my neocortex in charge. Anxiety always drives terrible decisions.
I’ve learned to deal with anxiety in these types of situations by planning my actions and responses ahead of time, when I can think straight and use my rational mind. I Get the Flu Shot Every Year. I Will Plan to Go As Soon As the Flu Shot Clinic Opens. I Will Not Run Screaming Out the Door Like That Little Boy Just Did.
On the way to the clinic, I told the Lyft driver where we were going. She replied that she didn’t get the flu shot. On the course of the drive, it was clear that this driver was a highly intelligent, educated intellectual; in fact, I would have liked to make friends and invite her out for tea. The trouble is that educated women of our age group are exactly the type of people who are so skeptical about vaccination that we resist it. I shared my story about getting sick the year that my hubby got inoculated and I didn’t. He was sitting right there, so look. See? It didn’t kill him!
The process only took a couple of minutes. We barely had time to sign the form before we were called up, one after the other. I warned the nurses that I get needle reaction, because it’s only fair to tell them. They suggested I think about something else, and chuckled while I described what I was thinking about: pot pie with peas and carrots and potatoes and ALL DONE! I hadn’t even gotten to the crust yet.
I’d like to say that I get the flu shot as a tribute to my beautiful mother-in-law, who was taken after her fifth bout with lymphoma. People going through cancer treatments have compromised immune systems, and they rely on healthy people to provide herd immunity. I’d also like to say that I get the flu shot because of all the little newborn babies who are too young to get their shots, babies who also rely on herd immunity. I probably wouldn’t have a seizure from the flu, but a baby might. The truth is that I’m a coward, a physical coward, and I know it. When it’s my amygdala talking, I don’t care about any darn cancer patients or newborn infants, I care about ME. What convinced me was those ten days of flu. He got the shot, I didn’t; I got sick, he didn’t. I’m sold.
In my typical week, I ride 8-10 buses. I go to the grocery store at least twice and the public library at least once. I go to two meetings with 30-40 other people. I go to a movie theater with 500 seats, usually full, and I go to a coffee shop and possibly three restaurants. Probably I go to a bookstore or other retail establishment. At the end of the day, I come home to my apartment complex, where I have 1500 neighbors, 80 of whom live in my building and share my front door. I use our gym seven days a week, sometimes the business center. I touch a lot of door handles, is what I’m saying. My decision whether to get the flu shot, like a good citizen, or procrastinate on it, like the big chicken I usually am, affects literally thousands of individual people in my community. One year, I was at an international airport when I realized I was coming down with the flu, and I rode on two planes and passed through two additional international airports before I made it home. It makes me cry to think of all the other people who must have picked up what I had that day.
Thousands of people die of influenza every year, vulnerable people who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to get the shot beforehand. It doesn’t have to be that way. Vaccination is a modern miracle, one that we’re quite lucky to have. Every time I do it, I try to think about how it’s proof that we’re living in the future. One of these years, they’ll find a way to vaccinate us against the common cold, and when they do, I’ll be first in line. Well, maybe second. I might need a minute to think about pot pie.
One of the many paradoxes about clutter is that it’s often those of us who reject materialism who have the most stuff. We can develop this idea that collecting objects is frugal and good for the environment. There are a number of flaws in this hypothesis. One is that in some cases, the older version is significantly less ecologically friendly. Another is that the example we set for others is cautionary, rather than inspirational. Trying to keep things out of the landfill can, in a way, land us in a scale-model home landfill. Perhaps most of all, being constantly surrounded by things sends the message that we need them, that there are no viable alternatives to the consumerist hedonic treadmill. It’s hard to reject materialism while clinging to material objects, no matter where they came from.
Lightbulbs and refrigerators are two examples of things that are better to buy new. The older versions draw so much power compared to new energy-efficient models that it even cancels out the materials used in production. New versions also last significantly longer. Hanging on to an older, less efficient appliance is not frugal, it’s false economy. Another example of this phenomenon is a recurring argument I have had with a frenemy who insists that electric dishwashers are less energy efficient. Every time this comes up, I share articles demonstrating that hand-washing dishes uses more water and more electricity, to no avail. Frugalites such as myself are often guilty of clinging to contrarian positions because they fit our identity. We’re the ones who are willing to bend over backwards, heroically doing what nobody else will do, because we alone care enough to save the world from its own idiocy! It’s awfully hard to admit it when the mainstream actually gets it right. It’s hard to update our standards and practices. If we’re serious, though, we must.
We should make it easy for others to agree with us. That’s true in general. Reduce the distance that someone has to travel to come to our position. Why would someone meet us halfway, when that person has no particular ambition to head in our direction? Use arguments and examples that are relevant to that individual, not the arguments that we ourselves would find convincing. “You should fill your kitchen with empty bottles, jugs, and jars that need to be washed and recycled” isn’t going to win many converts. “Cooking from scratch is easy and it tastes better” is a more convincing angle than “Thou shalt reduce packaging waste.” “This canvas bag is a superior product and plastic hurts your fingers” generally works better than “Think of the sea turtles!”
I don’t have to do it for economic necessity anymore, but I still shop at Goodwill. It’s the thrill of the hunt. It’s also emotional for me to buy new clothes, thinking of sweatshop labor and factory fires. I buy used because I’m a tightwad, but also because it’s good recycling. A few times other women have asked if I’ll teach them, and we have a fun outing, because it feels like retail therapy at bargain prices. Look: vintage! Look: couture! Look: major fashion-victim retail brands! The more flattering and stylish the look, the broader the net we cast. Nobody wanted to go thrifting with me when I LOOKED like I went thrifting.
My apartment is a teeny little shoebox, smaller than some hotel suites we’ve stayed in. It speaks for itself, though. The dining table and the couch are always open for guests to sit. The kitchen counters are always clear and ready for meal prep. The bed is made, and that’s pretty much the only thing in the bedroom. There isn’t even any room in the bathroom for anything other than soap and a towel rack. After a quick glance around the place, I usually take friends down to the pool, where it looks less like we live in a dorm and more like we live in a resort hotel. Hopefully our visitors come away with the sense that it’s possible to have fun and relax without being surrounded by tons of personal belongings and possessions. (Which is true!).
What is there to do besides shop several times a week and hunger for things we don’t yet own? Oh, everything really. Watch the juvenile night heron groom himself. Read. Have lengthy conversations about which super powers we don’t actually already have. (Hint: I can fly through the air and I also have the power of invisibility). Learn to draw. Take naps. Try to teach the dog to roll over to the right instead of just the left. Write an epic poem. Go for long walks. As far as I can tell, the main tradeoff for material objects is conspicuous leisure. Less to buy, less to carry, less to clean, less to worry about.
We don’t necessarily need to keep using worn-out, rickety, threadbare, or stained objects to live lightly. What I’ve found is that the majority of the time, I can do without that object entirely! Discarding the sense of responsibility for every single button, spatula, pot, or piece of paper that comes through our door has enabled us to downsize to a small and cozy space. If you saw our utility bills, I don’t know if you’d laugh or cry. The same creativity we use to recycle worthless old junk can be used toward solving our tangible problems with alternative methods. Doing more with less should look like something fun and interesting. We can set an example and reject materialism simply by demonstrating that life is easier and more relaxing without it.
They never tell you why you’re not moving forward. They can’t. Telling the truth about why certain people get hired or promoted and others don’t would inevitably invite a raft of lawsuits. I started to learn some of these things during a temp assignment at an employment agency. I picked up more of them as support staff at various companies in various industries. This is painful, because my ignorance of these unwritten rules held me back and kept me poor for years.
Working hard and doing a good job has very little to do with anything. Being the smartest person in the room is actually a negative, not a positive; it’s a clear sign that you’re on the wrong track. Being smarter than your boss is far more likely to be a hindrance than a help. Believe me. My IQ is in the 99th percentile, so statistically speaking, I can say with certitude that I’ve been at least a little smarter than every boss I’ve ever had. Not that that’s ever done me a whit of good. I didn’t understand that the question is not “Am I the best at this?” The question is, “How do I make my boss’s life easier every day?”
Work on the priorities the boss has assigned, even if you disagree. Get everything done on time. Fill out the forms, send the updates, do the busywork. Show up a few minutes early and leave a few minutes late. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it should be, but surprisingly, many of us feel like our boss’s requests are unreasonable distractions from our real work. We want to choose our own priorities, and this paycheck-signing boss-person just keeps getting in the way. We have to remember that we were hired to do this person’s bidding.
Hiring a new person is a demanding process. The reason there’s an opening is that things have gotten too busy for the existing staff. They have to add reading resumes to the list of stuff they’re already too busy to do. Their primary goal is to eliminate as many applications as they can, as quickly as they can, so that they only really have to decide between a half dozen instead of five hundred. This is why even a single typo can do you in. They’re genuinely looking for even the tiniest excuse to exclude someone from the stack. Not following the instructions to the letter is the second obvious way to exclude someone, because it makes the applicant look sloppy, defiant, or dumb. I still laugh about the marine biologist who hand-delivered his resume so he could explain to me, the humble office assistant, why he was the obvious choice for this new mechanical engineering position. (Incorrect).
Interviews are astonishing. I saw a man show up for a panel interview for a six-figure position wearing a track suit and a stocking cap. Another man brought his mom and had the entire panel come out to the lobby to meet her. A woman once left her office door open during an interview so we could all hear (and laugh at) the applicant swearing up a storm, dropping F-bombs and classics such as “I need a F-ing job.” These were mature adults with at least some advanced education. Nobody ever told them that there are rules for these things.
[For instance: I just saw a tweet from a woman who tagged her husband’s employer to complain about his paycheck, complete with cursing. That’s a twofer, a workplace fail AND a marriage fail!]
I knew how to copy-edit my resume and fill out applications like an A student. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, how to dress for a job interview. While I wasn’t making any glaring mistakes like the egregious examples above, I had no idea that my problems had nothing to do with these perfectionistic details.
My main problem was that I was being too vague. I wanted “a better job.” I didn’t have a particular career in mind. Due to this, I had no idea what additional credentials or training I should get. I didn’t see myself as a professional anything. I saw myself as a broke person who was trying as hard as she could. I didn’t understand that I’d already leveled out. With the education and training and experience and wardrobe that I had, I had already gotten as far as I was going to go. All I could do was to be an office assistant for a company with a comparatively better or worse corporate culture.
I went back for my degree. By the time I graduated, I had figured out a few things about my wardrobe. I had also figured out a few things about answering interview questions more strategically. Better, I had figured out some of the workplace mysteries that had been so puzzling to me before.
Venting to coworkers. In any contest of loyalty between you and the person who signs their paychecks, your coworkers are going to make the obvious choice. Coworkers are not friends. They are not your friends. They cannot be your friends. Make everyone’s life easier and just be a robot when you’re at work, a friendly and reliable robot. Even if you think you’re complaining discreetly, word gets around. More importantly, when you’re disgruntled, you’re not saying the correct things that a dedicated person does say. A person who is venting is not thinking, “How can I make my boss’s life easier?”
Making excuses. Never complain, never explain. A total-accountability person will be clearly identifiable, often within minutes of meeting. Almost nobody falls into this category. Most people who practice total accountability wind up being someone’s boss, and they recognize one another on sight. A standard-issue person can make a single fleeting facial expression or emit a single syllable and be instantly outed. We don’t even realize we’ve just exposed ourselves. An excuse says, “Let me tell you about me.” It does not say, “Tell me how I can make my boss’s life easier.”
Failing to follow through. This is a huge issue for total-accountability people, who are indeed rating and judging the rest of us every minute of the day on this issue. It appears in various disguises. Missing deadlines, being late, making mistakes, forgetting a commitment, losing track of anything... all look like things a conscientious person would not do.
The key problem here will not have been missed by keen readers, and that problem is, “What if I hate my boss and my boss is a terrible person?” Well, duh. Get out of there and work for a person and a mission that you can respect. If you can’t find one, start a side hustle, build a business, and be your own boss. There are tons of terrible, incompetent people in management. There are also a few gems, and every single one of them has had at least one person who couldn’t stand working under them. That’s because most of us simply hate having a boss and being told what to do. It helps to ask, “Do I hate this boss, or just bosses? Do I hate this job, or just all jobs? Or do I just hate working?”
I work much harder for myself than I ever did for someone else. I work on vacation, I work on weekends, I work late at night, I work on holidays, often I work before breakfast. I have worked on the bathroom floor in hotel rooms. I work on the bus and on the treadmill. One of the things they never tell you is that you’ll probably make far more money working far fewer hours if you can tolerate a boss and a day job.
They say to do what you love. I say to do something the world needs, and keep getting better at it. The love comes later, like an arranged marriage. Choose something specific, the more specific the better. Figure out what it takes to get into a job like that, then do every single thing on that list. Talk to people who have that job and ask them to heckle you until you get it right. Work is a way of making the world a better place, or at least a more efficient place. When you find something that feels like a meaningful contribution to you, it won’t matter as much what kind of boss you have.
The 12 Week Year is a business productivity book that has seized my attention. In fact, I’m working on my first 12-week plan right now. The other night, I somehow convinced myself that Third Quarter 2017 was ending a month early and I started feeling frantic about my unmet goals for the year. It was a visceral confirmation that deadlines are more motivating than goals with vague time horizons. The fact that most people bail on their New Year’s Resolutions is a solid indicator that a 12-week “year” may be more effective. Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, you’ve got me. I’m doing this.
The book claims that more than 60% of the time, the reason people don’t achieve their goals is due to lack of execution, but instead they tend to blame the plan. This is going to lead to either changing plans or giving up. I know this was true for me when I first tried to use a food log and I wasn’t losing weight. I asked my husband for help in analyzing my data, and, with some complicated math from the realm of astrophysics, he made a chart for me. I had to admit that I wasn’t being nearly as strict with my eating plan as I had convinced myself. Almost immediately I started to get results. This is an example that supports the concept of the 12-week scorecard. Rate yourself on your execution, not your results.
The 12 Week Year is fully loaded as an inspiring motivational handbook. The message is that we can achieve anything we want, if we are specific in our visions, strict in our execution, and rigorous with our consequences. It discusses “the mistaken notion that accountability is something that can and must be imposed; that’s not accountability, that’s consequences.” This is HUGE! If you’re not meeting your goals, it’s because you’re not worried about the consequences of failure. On the one hand, this is a sign of a nice easy life: the luxury of playing with pseudo-goals as a fun diversion. On the other hand, it’s a sign that nothing will ever change until your behaviors change.
The 12 Week Year has some great graphics, including a chart of “The Emotional Cycle of Change.” This alone makes the book a must-read. Another feature I really appreciated was the list of pitfalls for each section. So many goal-setting books are full of fluff about how amazing it will feel to achieve the goal, while including little or nothing about how to deal with the emotional and logistical issues that hold us back. “The Iceberg of Intentions” illustrates this beautifully, showing how easy it is to miss the hidden intentions that capsize our plans.
I have a “hidden” intention of never missing out on awesome edible treats. That’s why I struggle with my ostensible “real” intention to take care of myself and avoid predictable health issues.
My only issue with this book is the way the score-keeping system weights goals. Say I’m working on fitness, and my goals in that area are to get up at 6 AM, go to the gym and do the elliptical for an hour, and do my alternate weight-cutting food plan. I would get one point for each of those three goals, and if I blew one, my score in that area would be 66%. A D grade! I need to get up at 6 for my plan to work, but if all I do is get up early, I still get a point. Meanwhile, I know from experience that if I exercise at maximum capacity and eat vacation-style, I won’t lose weight, I’ll gain. For my personal practice, following the food plan needs to be weighted at about 10x more important than going to the gym. Either that, or I need to make my food plan its own goal and detach it from my physical training goals. Of course, all this means is that my home version of the 12 Week Year will be more personalized, not that there are any issues with rating progress on a 12-week timeframe rather than a calendar year.
For those who want to take this further, there is a website with a very glossy computer tracking system. It also has this PDF workbook, which I quite like. Messrs. Moran and Lennington, thank you for this.
“If you are unwilling to confront reality, then you will never be able to change it.”
The word “administrivia”
This isn’t a question about you, not really. It’s a question you have to ask yourself about your date, if you’re single and meeting someone new.
The thing about dating is that it involves the way people act. Being in a relationship isn’t about how attractive someone is, what kind of job they have, how funny they are, or how impressive their dating profile is. It’s about how they treat you, how you treat them, how you communicate together. Romance is about behavior.
Why is someone single? This isn’t really a question for young people, but it becomes more salient as time goes by.
Too busy. There are genuinely times in life when someone doesn’t have time for romance. Grad school, starting a business, caring for a terminally ill relative, preparing to relocate… Sometimes it’s just situational. Other times, this person just doesn’t put as high a priority on having a romantic partner, and maybe never will. Even if you’re married.
On the rebound. Post-breakup, people are vulnerable. The usual choice is to fall madly for someone who is the diametric opposite of the recent ex. That’s where my first marriage came from…
Not emotionally available. Never got over their ex, has a crush on someone else, questioning their sexuality, recovering from trauma, just wanting to be single for the foreseeable future.
Impossible standards. This person may have considered and rejected several people because no human being who ever existed would pass that bar. That’s going to include you. Nothing personal.
Bad habits. This person may just be really annoying to live with. Someone who is a bad roommate is never going to make a good mate.
Sadistic. Oh ho ho, they’re out there. Someone with something to hide is going to be good at hiding it. I’m guessing that about 1% of the population genuinely enjoys hurting others, physically, emotionally, or in any other way they can. It’s a power trip.
Not the monogamous kind. There are a lot of perfectly lovely people who are not emotionally aligned in a way that includes settling down with one person for the long term. It’s totally fine to be among them, as long as everyone involved tells the truth. You can’t fake monogamy, not for long anyway.
Low emotional intelligence. Oblivious, inconsiderate, and so out of touch that they’re never really going to change. A low EQ person might still function in society, because some careers tolerate this. You can still be physically fit and have a comfortable material infrastructure while also being unable to connect well with others.
Narcissistic. To be distinguished from sadism. A sadist will hurt you for lulz, but narcissists will hurt you as revenge for wounding their ego.
Jealous. A jealous, possessive person will never be satisfied. They don't realize that their very jealousy and desire for control tends to create the conditions that will drive a formerly faithful person to cheat. “She cheated on me” is a great cover story for being single, but sometimes there’s a little more to it.
Irresponsible. As with people who refuse to learn to cook, there are a lot of people who expect that someone else is always going to be there to bail them out. For instance, the person who is moving but hasn’t packed a single box by moving day. The irresponsible person is always going to blow you off, forget your birthday, forget your anniversary, abdicate, fail to follow through, and forget the most important item on the shopping list.
Broke. I’ve met people of every age, through their eighties, who have never bothered to make a financial plan of any kind. The older we get, the harder it is to fall in love with reckless abandon - that’s just true - and especially when we wonder whether we’d be marrying this person’s debt, poor credit, and lack of retirement savings. Take whatever you have saved and mentally divide it in half. Does it work?
Selfish. Sometimes people just get it into their heads that they can be takers and expect the world to wait on them. A surprising number of people refuse to learn to cook, do housework, pick up after themselves, or carry their own weight in general. The weird thing is how often they get away with it.
The trouble is, deeply flawed people can still be really cute and charming. Everyone has flaws, in fact I’d say that everyone has at least one major flaw (I sure do), but there are flaws you can live with and flaws you can’t. I mean, flaws that you in particular can live with. It’s about the crazy you can put up with. Ideally, you’ll figure out what that is in advance, before you fall for somebody.
So much of love is chemical. You get hooked on someone’s scent, on the kiss and the touch, and then there’s no hope for you. Ask the necessary questions before you get close enough to smell their neck. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that you’ve caught this amazing person during the blip in time that you’re both free. You’re so great that you’re only single because nobody else has snapped you up yet.
I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.